Elephant Isle

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November 7th 2008
Published: November 7th 2008
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After two sticky days in Bangkok, I felt trapped in some sort of drug-induced stupor. I wandered about town, trying my damnedest to devote appropriate awe to the city’s historical wats and Buddhas and to relish the colorful chaos of the markets, but the humidity was kicking my ass. Bangkok is a wet, busy, grimy town- and its admirable inhabitants were intriguing-but my New England lungs took the wallop of wet heat like an armadillo to an aquarium. Any sense of a north-bound, sun-baked, UNESCO-rich game plan melted and oozed out my ears. In a mad leap toward any sort of swimmable water and moving air currents, I scoured our 40 baht-an-hour internet service for a reasonable retreat. Bangkok spit me out alive, and I’m swallowing my culture-snob anti-beach bunny sensibilities whole and going somewhere I can breathe.

Five hours on a blessedly air-conditioned bus. Our government bus has a fun-loving announcer, frequent stops for food and bathroom, and non-stop American movies dubbed into Thai. Our climate-controlled film fest features a Jessica Biel/ Jaime Foxx military hyper-uber-action snoozer imaginatively dubbed Stealth, in which Thailand makes a cameo appearance as a bombing test site locale, complete with blood-spattered traditionally clothed, frightened children; The Incredible Hulk; and the cherry on top, a Hasselhoffian venture in which lake-dwelling dinosaurs eat B-movie actors whole—bravo! Outside, the landscape is infinitely more engaging. As we surface from the ex-Bangkok sprawl, our bus riding the interstate’s miraculous pavement swells like a brontosaurian rollercoaster car, industrial plants and swarms of motorbikes give way to red dirt, small-scale rubber and papaya cultivation, and corrugated-iron roofed roadside shops where scrappy kids play in terracotta puddles and sprint in vain attempts to keep plastic kites aloft. The land, both wild and domesticated, is all forest: smaller, thicker Nipa palms grow alongside their more statuesque coconut cousins and patchwork rubber farms create austere understory matchbooks amidst a matted tangle of life.

Most shops and restaurants here embody this paradigm- they’re set alongside a major road for optimal patronage. The buildings are at least partially open air constructions and consist of corrugated iron and plastic, or the nicer ones, of palm thatch. The shop offers a small anterior seating area inside near the makeshift kitchen, and outside is surrounded by a throng of metal folding tables and chairs. These establishments are local gathering spots. It is rare to see Thai people spend
men fixing the ferrymen fixing the ferrymen fixing the ferry

Right after this picture was taken, one of these dudes dove down to repair something on the bottom of the boat, the enormous engine running the whole time.
much time in a shop with closed doors. These seem mostly for farangs. Most rural Thai people cannot afford A/C, and it’s nicer to be somewhere that may afford a breeze.

We spent the night in Trat, an unremarkable if charming gulfside town on the way to the ferry to Ko Chang, the second largest island in Thailand after the unfortunate Phuket, whose natural beauty was long ago slain by the sinister nautical trident of commercialism, sex industries and Buffet bars. Our guesthouse in Trat was far cheaper than in Bangkok (big surprise), and our room was open, airy and cottage-like. Strewn with hammocks and sweet felines and floored in red tile, the whole place felt vaulted, salt-hewn and cool. We woke at 6:30 to the first hint of cool sweetness Thailand offers before the sun is high, and looked out over the bougainvilleas and yuccas that lined the back garden. We were pretty loathe to leave, except we knew even better digs awaited us a short ferry ride away.

Chang is Thai for elephant, so Ko Chang is Elephant Island, although I don’t think there are any native wild elephants here anymore. Thai-Chinese agricultural families first settled here in the mid-19th century, however serious development didn’t begin until the 1990’s with the construction of the coast road, still the only real road on the island. The interior of the island, mostly rugged peaks and jungle are still largely untouched by development, although trekking tours and elephant rides often penetrate the natural atmosphere. Technically, Ko Chang’s interior is a national park, but this touches on a tender Thai environmental issue. Officially, 13% of Thailand is national park land, a significant percentage (compared to the decent 10% and 6% boasted by the U.S. and Japan respectively ), yet many complain about the large-scale beach development so close to the territory, and the pollution and noise its presence causes. People worry that the unchecked beachside trash now typical on Ko Chang and Ko Samet, its diminutive neighbor and also national parkland, will dilute standards for other national park areas. Based on these concerns, some argue that the islands should be stripped of their national park status, while others advocate for greater awareness of pollutants on the islands.

Generally, it seems that Thai trash and recycling organization is pretty dismal. I have seen no evidence of recycling at all (in contrast, everyone in Japan must recycle: trash bags are all translucent, and citizens are fined for shirking their environmental responsibilities), and trash often washes up on the beach. What at first appear to be beached jellyfish are often just waterlogged plastic bags. Discarded items of all sorts speckle the roadsides, but I have yet to see an actual dump of any sort.

Despite the gouges humanity has perpetrated here, the island’s magnificence is resilient and the defacement seems mild. The island looms in the Gulf of Thailand with the relaxed, mammoth grace of its namesake; sleepy forested slopes retiring onto coconut fringed beaches. Our songthoew (a taxi constructed out of a pick-up truck with benches facing each other in the rear), miraculously jammed with fourteen passengers, careened around the verdant switchbacks that traverse the mountains, its undercarriage licking the pavement at every sharp turn. We arrived at Hat Klong Phrao and the terracotta mud that lined the road gave way to towering coconut groves. Our sweat-stained arrival was greeted by the caronking of huge, wild geese, awkward and ungainly as pubescent cafeteria-dwellers, hunting for lunch in the marsh beside the path. We passed butterflies I mistook for birds due to their size, and orchids sprouted from trees as simply as lichen might at home. Hat Klong Phrao is one of the only affordable beaches on Ko Chang to retain its (relatively) uncommercialized, quiet nature, and we had chosen the cheapest place on the beach- really the only one we could afford.

KP Huts turned out embody every tropical beachside paradise fantasy we had, at a shockingly affordable price. There are fifty small bamboo and thatched palm bungalows snuggled into gorgeous palm groves right on the water. We spent our first evening in one such hut, salivating over the treehouses on stilts that lined the shore. The following day, we learned we could upgrade to Swiss Family Thailand for a measly 100 baht a night, so ever since, we’ve been living in a ridiculously luxe treehouse right over the beach. The whole structure is made of woven palm fronds and fits smartly into the crotch of a lazy casuarina tree. Casaurinas look like American long needled pines, however their green ‘needles’ are actually long, slender, green twigs.

Vendors, swaddled in handkerchiefs and broad-brimmed hats, patrol the beach, angling for the wealthy, or the wealthy compared to them, to splurge on a shell necklace or a longyi. Alto volleys of bamboo pan pipes signal their approach, a surprisingly soothing advertising scheme. They are unfailingly friendly, hoping for a sale, and doggedly walk most of the day away under the killer equatorial sun. It appears to sparkle winningly from the shade but is in fact viciously bright- we get quite burned if we stay on the beach for much more than a half an hour straight. After much bartering, we bought a hammock from one vendor, and it has become our prized possession. Lofted above the waves, in the spattered shade of the casuarinas, we spend most of our time reading and attempting to learn Thai from coloring books and children’s primers. We tracked our guy down yesterday on our way back from town and bought a second hammock, in the process securing our place as loyal customers and therefore friends.

Our vendor is generous enough to be impressed with our preschool Thai, and in Thai and English told us a little of his family’s heritage in Udon Thani (in Isaan, in the mostly poor farming region just west of the Lao border) and his trials with local organized crime on the job. Often mobsters materialize on the sand and demand pay-offs of 2,000 baht (a great deal of money to a small businessman) or they will confiscate his wares. He says the local racket has been particularly bad the last four years, yet they are moving on, and it seems the new ‘big boss’ is much fairer. He explained that this is why most vendors disappear in the early afternoon, not so much from the heat, but rather to avoid run-ins with the mob members who prowl the beaches looking for them during these midday hours. Although our miserable Thai prevents any real understanding of these issues, organized crime and unfair business hierarchies that prey on naïve foreigners or the financially weak seem a part of daily life here.

Our second and third day here, the water was swarming with leopard-spotted jellyfish. I know they’re not terribly venomous, but I still didn’t want to nurse stings. We were pretty wary at first, but they’re very slow moving, and generally get pushed far inland by the waves, so a little careful mincing through the shallows liberates you from major concerns. I did manage to contract some sort of infection from the water. I had terribly itchy ant/spider? bites, and so I spent the majority of the day lounging in the saltwater hoping to soothe them. By that evening, one foot was terribly painful, itchy and swollen. We went to the clinic the next morning, and the nurse told me that soaking open wounds in ocean water was a mistake a lot of northerners make here. Because the water is so warm, it often can carry bacteria, so I had unwittingly soaked myself silly in a stew of irritants. The clinic was clean and bright, and I was seen immediately. The girl who treated me didn’t look like she could have been older than twenty. I sat on the examining table and she motioned for me to put my foot on a raised metal grill. Clearly biohazard protocol is different here. Directly under the grill, in a metal basin, were all the materials she had used on previous patients, dirty gauze, q-tips, etc. and the grill rack was streaked with pus and blood. I tried to compromise between trusting the locals and taking my life in my hands by gingerly laying my foot on the edge, as far away from the dried blood as I could. She efficiently cleaned me up, and gave me a penicillin cousin for my infection and a ban on swimming for three days. On my second day of meds, I’m feeling better already. My doctor’s visit and prescription together cost $4.

A week here has flown by. The heat and humidity (even in its gentler shoreline form) mandates that you do less, lest you exhaust yourself. I’ve tried yoga once in the heat, and ran on the beach once after sundown, but generally we eat much less and move much more slowly. It’s been nice to have some time away from constant overstim to plan our next move. We might try our first motorbike tomorrow (with helmets, and they don’t go fast!), and we’ll probably head back to the mainland the next day.
We’ll take our favorite coach bus back to Bangkok and then transfer to a train to Ayutthaya, the 15th century capital of Thailand and a moated island. We intend to stay a day and bike around the ruins, and then head north to Sukhothai, an even older capital with even grander ruins. Hopefully, we’ll catch the tail end of
our treehouseour treehouseour treehouse

in the casuarina tree... pretty much in the middle of the photo
Loy Krathong there. Loy Krathong gives thanks to the water goddess Phra Mae Khong Kha and to cast adrift any bad luck amassed over the past year. People buy beautifully crafted rafts of banana leaves and orchids, light candles in them, and set them afloat along the waterways of the village.

More soon-
Snorkmaiden (& Schannelhannelestenhauser)

Additional photos below
Photos: 18, Displayed: 18


our houseour house
our house

in the middle of our beach

7th November 2008

Hi, you two. Great photos, and where'd you learn to write so good?? There's a memoir here. Very entertaining and informative. Sounds wonderful. Thinking of you. xoxoxo
12th November 2008

Can you send me a Jelly?
Guys, Sounds like your adventure is off to a pleasant and exciting start start. Stay away from the foreign puss, and blood and it sounds like you will be fine... How has the food been, have you guys made any pals? j-man
13th November 2008

This trip is brilliant. I have read all the posts today since I just recently found out about your site. Obviously all is going well for you. Please keep the posts coming. It sounds incredilbe. ~Wilson

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